I loathe [Andre]Agassi with a passion," wrote the late great David Foster Wallace. "Agassi's facial expression is the slightly smug self-aware one of somebody who's used to being looked at and who automatically assumes the minute he shows up anywhere that everybody's looking at him."
Harsh words, I thought, but when Agassi's recent "revelations" started showing up in our news cycles, leaked from his autobiography, I began to understand Wallace's bias.
To learn that Agassi proudly competed without underpants, that for much of his career he wore a wig - yes, that frost-tipped rooster mullet was a hair system - that he used crystal meth for a year and, when he failed a drug test, decided to lie about it to the ATP ("I drank a friend's spiked soda!") - these details, along with the acid-washed denim shorts, the bandanas, the white corvette and the Space Invaders game installed in a bedroom, all make a negative verdict pretty unavoidable.
But, you say, he didn't have to come clean. What kind of idiot voluntarily confesses to wearing a toupee and lying about doing drugs? The kind of idiot, I would respond, who wants to shamelessly stage-manage free publicity for his autobiography - an autobiography for which he's received five million bucks and an autobiography that he didn't technically, actually write.
Open was co-crafted by J.R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Agassi chose his ghost writer after reading Moehringer's memoir, The Tender Bar, during his last U.S. Open in 2006.
Agassi reads literary memoirs during a Grand Slam? Contradictions abound in the guy: He's a pyromaniac rebel who loves Celine Dion, he hate tennis but hates losing more - and it is the struggle to alternately contain and express contradiction that makes his picaresque journey so tormented, so compelling, and at last so resolutely and triumphantly un-idiotic.
Why tormented? Agassi's father, an ex-Olympic boxer from Iran, a disciplinarian out of Dickens, the kind of dad who "leaves the house with a handful of salt and pepper in each pocket in case he's in a street fight and needs to blind his opponent"; you know, that kind of dad. He modifies a ball-machine to spit balls faster at seven-year-old Andre, yelling at him to hit earlier, hit harder, pushing him to hit 2,500 balls a day, a million a year.
L'il Andre hates tennis with all his heart but he has no choice and internalizes his father's impatience, perfectionism and rage. When he's banished to the Bollettieri and Bradenton academies, glorified prison camps that smell of "vomit, toilet, and fear," he acts out. He drinks, smokes pot, plays finals in dungarees, earrings and eyeliner, jonesing for stimuli. Nick Bollettieri describes him as a "cocky showboat who seeks the limelight," sentiments echoed by the first journalists who encounter him when he's playing semi-pro. They label him a punk, a clown, a fraud, a fluke; he's also a 16-year-old already ranked in the top 100.
Agassi is blessed with one-in-a-million gifts - his ability to see the ball, his nano-second reaction time - but he's at the mercy of a dozen immaturities. He's running a race that isn't his and he doesn't know who he is while he's running it. "At heart," he writes. "I'm doing nothing more than being myself, and since I don't know who that is, my attempts to figure it out are scattershot and awkward - and, of course, contradictory."
These contradictions lead to title wins, and a few first slams, but they also lead to tantrums and crying jags, confused existential crises where he smashes all his trophies or, in a fit of I-quit-tennis depression, gives away all his rackets to a group of woodland homeless people. He marries the actress Brooke Shields, another prodigy who didn't have much of a childhood, but the marriage dissipates and Agassi's ranking falls to 141st in the world.
If there is a hero in this book, it is trainer-mentor-guru Gil Reyes, who, along with coach Brad Gilbert, gives focus and direction to the second half of Agassi's career. The answer to the constant whirl, the "centrifugal force of this fucked-up tennis life," is to work and work hard, harder than any one else on the tour, training even on Christmas Eve. Agassi's alliance with Reyes result in more slams after the age of 29 than before, an almost unheard-of phenomenon. It is during this time that tennis gives him the heroine of his life, Stefanie Graf, "the greatest person I have ever known," who becomes his second wife.
But still there is his search for self, the struggle to solve the calculus of his own purpose. "To be inspired," Agassi tells his brother. "That's the secret." And, after arranging to help a family with their children's education fund, he remarks, "This is the only perfection, the perfection of helping others." It is when he combines inspiration with perfection that he founds the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy and finds perhaps his truest calling.
So after 30 years, after 1,000 matches, eight slams, 60 titles and an Olympic gold metal, the contradictions come full circle. The kid who dropped out of school at 14 now operates a charter school for hundreds of at-risk children in Las Vegas. Earlier this year, the institution celebrated its first graduating class. Regardless of underpants and wigs and failed drug tests, that's an exceptional achievement - and a capping legacy for one of America's quintessential celebrity athletes.
A former provincially ranked junior tennis player, Alex Pugsley works in film and television.